Review: LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

MandelESJ-LastNightInMontrealUK2015An interesting debut

Lilia has been leaving people behind her entire life. Haunted by her inability to remember her early childhood, and by a mysterious shadow that seems to dog her wherever she goes, Lilia moves restlessly from city to city, abandoning lovers and friends along the way. But then she meets Eli, and he’s not ready to let her go, not without a fight.

Gorgeously written, charged with tension and foreboding, Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal is the story of a life spent at the centre of a criminal investigation. It is a novel about identity, love and amnesia, the depths and limits of family bonds and – ultimately – about the nature of obsession.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is easily one of my favourite books from last year (as it was for a great many others, it seems). Mandel’s prose is superb, and I really enjoyed her take on a post-apocalyptic landscape. Naturally, after the considerable success of that novel, Mandel’s UK publisher (Picador) has re-issued her first three novels with new covers to match the aesthetic of Station Eleven. They are, however, very different novels in terms of topic and genre. Naturally, I bought them immediately. Last Night in Montreal is the author’s debut, and I read it without even reading the synopsis (it was nice, therefore, to see that what I got out of the book aligns with that final paragraph, above). I plan to read the other two very soon. This novel is very good, and shows the beginnings of the skill and style that would be fully realized in Station Eleven.

The story is a little strange, but by no means in a bad way. It’s literary/contemporary fiction, and follows a similar structure as Station Eleven‘s: there is a main, “present-day” timeline, which throws out hints of events past. Interspersed, and almost in reverse chronological order, Mandel gives us chapters that delve back, illuminating events in certain characters’ pasts that explain some of the otherwise-bizarre and/or inexplicable decision her characters make.

The novel is a nuanced examination of obsession, and also the ways in which childhood trauma can impact lives – directly and indirectly. The characters are three-dimensional, interesting and distinct. It is filled with amusing and interesting observations about language, culture, hipsterism (a little), and the aforementioned obsession.

Here’s one example, an analogy about Quebec and its position on language, French-vs.-English:

“The Québécois are speaking French with an accent so ancient and frankly bizarre that French people from France can’t understand it. It’s like a fortress in a rising tide of English. It’ll be like research for you.”

“What do you mean, a fortress?”

“Imagine a country next to the sea,” she said, “and imagine that the water’s rising. Imagine a fortress that used to stand near the beach, but now it’s half underwater, and the water won’t stop rising no matter how they try to fight it back. Eventually, in the next century or so, it will more than likely rise over the top of the walls and overwhelm them, but for now they’re plugging the cracks and pretending it doesn’t exist and passing laws against rising water. I’m saying that French is the fortress, and English is the sea.”

And another, which is something that resonated with me on multiple levels (it’s a criticism that can be attributed to any number of situations):

“You know what bothered me about it? Everyone was supposedly committed to the pursuit of truth and beauty, or at least one of those things, but no one was actually doing anything about it, and it seemed all wrong to me. The inertia, I mean. The inertia made everything seem fraudulent. There we were, talking about art, but no one was doing anything except Lilia. She was taking pictures. She spoke four languages.”

“Five.”

“You’re counting Russian? Anyway, what I’m saying is that no one was doing anything important except her. She worked as a dishwasher, she lived cheaply, she took beautiful pictures and translated things. She never made any money off it, it was just something she did. The point is, she never talked about it. She never seemed like she was posing. She never theorized or deconstructed. She just practised her art, practised it instead of analyzing it to death, and it rendered the rest of us fraudulent…”

Last Night in Montreal has some rough edges, it perhaps meanders a little bit as the characters indulge in a fair bit of navel-gazing, and it isn’t quite as assured or polished as Station Eleven. But, it certainly shows the promise that the author would fulfill in spades. With a gut-punch of an ending, this is a novel that has stuck with me.

If you are looking for an interesting, well-written novel, then Last Night in Montreal should suit your needs. Recommended.

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